How Much De-Incarceration is Enough?

Kevin Drum is surely correct when he argues that the U.S. puts way too many people in prison. With the imprisonment rate falling for five straight years and state after state passing major reforms designed to reduce the number of people behind bars, it’s a good time to ask precisely how much de-incarceration reformers need to declare victory.

One possible answer is to strive for a return to the rate of incarceration that prevailed historically until the mid-1970s. Until that point, the imprisonment rate rarely ventured too far in either direction from 0.1% – less than a quarter of the rate we have today. However, that standard was established before the modern feminist movement forced the criminal justice system to take violent crime against women seriously. There are currently a couple hundred thousand men behind bars for raping, assaulting and otherwise terrorizing women. We should not be nostalgic for the era when many or most of them would have gotten away with such crimes. This same point should be borne in mind by anyone who is tempted to look covetously at the low incarceration rates of countries such as India where violence against women almost never results in arrest and prosecution.

Would dropping incarceration to a Western European level be a reasonable goal for the U.S.? Certainly we should move in that direction, but the U.S. is more violent than any of those countries. Our homicide rate is about four times that of the U.K. and about ten times that of France and Germany. It is unrealistic to expect therefore that our incarceration rate will ever drop to their level.

An alternative way to approach the problem is to forget about comparative numerical targets and return to first principles: What is prison for? Typically, we send people to prison for one or all of three reasons (1) to keep the public safe, (2) to provide rehabilitation and (3) to punish people appropriately for things we think are wrong. The current level of incarceration is indefensible on those grounds, but we can strive to return to a level that is.

Kevin notes for example that while we are past the point where increasing incarceration keeps reducing the crime rate, such a point clearly exists, and we could find it again. A further important standard is when overcrowding has eased enough that prisons can again engage in meaningful rehabilitation versus, say, triple bunking inmates in what used to be the basketball court. Finally, when long sentences are again reserved for those who have committed truly serious crimes, we will know that the size of the prison population reflects a commitment to punishing criminals proportionately rather than indiscriminantly.

Weekend Film Recommendation: Night Train to Munich


Last week, I recommended The Lady Vanishes, Alfred Hitchcock’s classic tale of suspense and romance. This week, I recommend a quasi-sequel made without The Master, who had by then decamped to Hollywood: 1940′s Night Train to Munich.

Released two years after The Lady Vanishes, the film features the same female lead (Margaret Lockwood), the same scriptwriters (Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat), the same setting (a European train journey taken on the brink of war), and even two of the same supporting characters (Charters and Caldicott). The director this time around, Carol Reed, was clearly to some extent aping Hitchcock’s style, but Reed’s distinctive touches are in evidence throughout.

The world had gotten much darker between the making of the two films, and Night Train to Munich reflects that by having more suspense and less humor than The Lady Vanishes. The film opens grimly with the people of Prague being terrorized by the arrival of German storm troopers. Professor Bomasch (James Harcourt), whose scientific expertise can aid the war effort, must flee the Nazis without his daughter (Lockwood), who is subsequently interned in a concentration camp. She is befriended there by a handsome, idealistic Czech national (Paul Henried, then called Paul von Hernried, in a strong performance that almost surely led to him being cast later as Victor Laszlo in Casablanca). The two flee to London and reunite with Professor Bomasch, but he and his daughter are almost immediately kidnapped back again to Germany! Enter a brave, resourceful spy (Rex Harrison!!!) who goes undercover in Germany to rescue the Professor and the lovely daughter whom he clearly fancies.

Relative to The Lady Vanishes, the major disadvantage of Night Train to Munich is that it doesn’t give the talented Lockwood enough to do beyond looking lovely and in peril. On the other hand, that omission gives more screen time to Rex Harrison, in a remarkable example of off-beat casting working shockingly well. Sir Rex, who would later be credible as Dr. Doolittle and Professor Henry Higgins, carries off a Nazi uniform with panache. The ease with which he infiltrates Nazi headquarters through sheer bravado is one of the film’s many funny observations about bureaucracies: Everyone thinks that someone else must have authorized this unknown German officer’s mission, so they don’t question him for fear of angering a superior somewhere else in the organization.

The film took advantage of Charters and Caldicott’s (Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne) reputation as comic, out of touch Englishmen. Initially, they are played for laughs, but in a key scene they are humiliated by a German officer and realize that the time for joking is past and they must become engaged in the fight. They then perform bravely in the struggle against the Germans, who have clearly underestimated them. All of this was no doubt a resonant message for British audiences in 1940.

After a series of Hitchcock-level plot contrivances, the film concludes with a nail-biting closing act in which our heroes try to escape using a cable car across a Swiss gorge. What the climax lacks in realism (those 15 shot pistols only run out of bullets when it would be maximally agonizing to do so) it more than makes up for in thrills. I also loved the final shot of the key bad guy (whose identity I will not reveal) which is sympathetically done. It’s a moment that shows how Reed’s artistic sensibility was different than Hitchcock’s, and establishes that despite being to some extent an homage to Hitch, this superb movie is at the same time very much Reed’s own.

Although not quite in the same class as The Lady Vanishes, Night Train to Munich is an exciting and enjoyable film. If you have the stamina for a double feature, it’s tremendous fun to watch it back to back with the movie that inspired it.

p.s. Interested in a different sort of film? Check out this list of our prior recommendations.

Lurch on, O Mighty Ship of State

There has been extensive commentary about Hillary Clinton’s decision to position herself further left as a candidate than did her husband, who picked off many Southern white and independent votes from the GOP when he ran for POTUS. There’s not as many swing voters left these days, so Hillary Clinton is going where the votes are. It’s smart politics, and I expect the Republican candidates to try to fire up their own base in the same fashion.

While not faulting candidates for taking a rational course, I do want to moan ineffectually about how dispiriting it is that we have no middle ground left in our national politics. This reduces us to a Westminster system of government when one party controls the White House and both Houses of Congress, and the rest of the time we have gridlock and ferocious efforts by the opposition to undo whatever happened in the other party’s “Parliament”, especially because it was a product of the wing of the party that the opposition hates the most. Given the difference between presidential and mid-term election voters, we probably have much more lurching back and forth to endure in the coming years.

I hate this aspect of our politics because Americans have to make many decisions in their lives that can’t be revised every two years if the policy environment lurches sharply in the opposite direction from which it was recently headed. Consider these kinds of life decisions: Should I buy a house and take out a mortgage? Should I risk taking a new job that doesn’t come with health insurance? Should I get married and have children? Can I afford to retire now? Should I try to start a business and hire people? Should I take out loans and go to medical school? Should I join the military? Those are just some of the consequential life decisions that people make in light of the public policy environment, and when it rocks and sways and reverses in dramatic fashion over and over, what once seemed like good choices can end up as disasters.

This is an entirely immature and self-indulgent post: i.e., I am just whining and have no solutions. I just wish we could agree as a people on some fundamental rules for the kind of country we want to have so that everyone who is just trying to get through this life without inordinate pain and frustration doesn’t feel that their future is a hostage to fortune every 24 months.

The U.S., Mexico, and Cheap Legalized Pot

Alejandro Hope makes the interesting observation that although the official marijuana legal regime is different between the U.S. and Mexico, growers in both countries operate in a grey zone between aggressive prohibition and full legalization. Growing is legal at the state level in much of the U.S. and illegal everywhere in Mexico, yet:

U.S. growers and distributors face a far greater risk of going to jail than their Mexican counterparts. In 2012, 92,000 persons were arrested in the United States on charges of marijuana production and/or sale. By way of contrast, in 2014, Mexican federal authorities opened 2109 investigations related to the production, transportation, trafficking, and commerce of all illegal drugs.

Alejandro also notes that the greater risk of arrest in the U.S., coupled with higher land and labor costs (and I would add, water costs) produces an eye-popping pot price differences:

farm gate prices for commercial grade marijuana in the mountains of northwestern Mexico can sell for as little as $6 dollars a pound. In Mendocino County, California, growers can get around $800 dollars per pound of high-grade sinsemilla weed.*

In both countries, pot is pretty cheap these days in absolute terms despite the added business costs that stem from some degree of illegality. If the U.S. legalizes completely, U.S. prices will fall dramatically. It is not fanciful at all to imagine that a joint could sell for a dime eventually, barring minimum unit pricing legislation or enormous excise taxes (ad valorem taxes don’t matter much, even a 50% tax would be inconsequential if pot were 10 cents a joint).

This raises an interesting question: If the U.S. legalizes, would Mexico follow suit and start a cheap, mass market marijuana industry that undercuts the prices of U.S. producers? If legal U.S producers can make a 10 cent joint, a legal Mexican producer should be able to make 5 or 1 cent joint. A common rejoinder to such speculation is that consumers will insist on high-grade, boutique U.S. marijuana from “branded” places like Mendocino County, much as they insist on craft beer rather than Budweiser. This argument will resonate with journalists, college professors, policy wonks and other educated middle class types who drink craft beer, but remember, after the best year in its history, craft beer has has reduced the share of the market taken up by mass market beer to a paltry….89%. When most people outside the chattering classes reach for beer, it’s cheap, mass market product. The same could easily happen with pot, and under legalization Mexican farmers could be extremely competitive in that market.

*Internet users skew upmarket, so I know some readers will think this estimate is way too cheap based on their own buying experiences in posh dispensaries. So let me confirm from recent conversations with Humboldt County sinsemilla farmers: they got about $800 per pound in the last growing cycle and are selling for a price in the same general range right now ($1100/pound, give or take).

On Social Media, There is No One to Whom to Apologize

After his sexist, unfunny comments went viral and provoked a social media firestorm, Nobel Laureate Sir Tim Hunt has been forced to resign from his honorary professorship and been kicked off the European Research Council. His wife, Professor Mary Collins, likewise a distinguished scientist, has also been personally and professionally battered:

their house was doorstepped by reporters, says Collins. “One of them said that his paper had found my ex-husband.

He said it was all very juicy and I needed to get a response in. I didn’t, but I still had a sleepless night. In fact, it wasn’t that juicy. It was a story of a woman, me, who divorced one man and then married another, Tim. But it was still horrible.”

In addition, bodies such as the Royal Society – of which Hunt is a fellow – were pressing for him to make a fuller apology for his remarks in Korea. Within two days, the pressure had become desperate for both scientists. “Tim sat on the sofa and started crying,” says Collins. “Then I started crying. We just held on to each other.”

In watching another one of these social media condemnation cycles, it occurred to me that once these get going there really isn’t any way to stop them. When there were three television networks, you could do an interview with Cronkite and say that yes, you behaved terribly and you were sorry. The finite, definable, public figures and organizations who were criticizing you could then accept the apology and call off the dogs (particularly if you took the trouble to meet with them personally and apologize again). Your reputation would be deservedly dented, but at least your career and family weren’t destroyed.

Today, because thousands of people (maybe tens of thousands) are independently condemning the target of social media firestorms, there really isn’t any way to stanch the flames by owning up to your mistake. If you went on a TV show and apologized, most of the people who were gunning for you would probably never see it, and it would be practically impossible for you to craft individual apologies to every angry email writer and Twitter critic. All you can really do is wait for the storm to move on to the next target.

Weekend Film Recommendation: The Lady Vanishes


This week and next I will be recommending two linked films made in Britain by different, tremendously talented directors. The first was made by the magnificent Alfred Hitchcock as the British phase of his career was winding down: 1938′s The Lady Vanishes.

For the first 25 minutes, the movie is a light-hearted romantic comedy featuring an utterly charming Margaret Lockwood and Michael Redgrave as, respectively, a wealthy American heiress bound for a loveless marriage with a penurious but titled aristo and a footloose music scholar manqué who clearly has some growing up to do. That they will fall in love is never in doubt, but murder and intrigue intrude as they make a train journey across the fictional central European country of Mandrika. An elderly, kindly, British-as-Sunday-roast governess named Miss Froy (Dame Mae Whitty, effortlessly fine) is at the center of events. After our heroine is coshed on the head by a falling flower pot, Miss Froy befriends her. But soon Miss Froy vanishes without trace and everyone denies that she ever existed! As in so many other films of this sort, the central character must struggle with whether her fears are real or are imagined (as everyone around her keeps saying).

As you might guess from the above description, the plot contrivances in this film are many, even by Hitchcockian standards. Most notably, if you watch the final few scenes carefully, you may wonder why the film wasn’t titled “The gun-toting bad guy vanishes”. But Hitchcock was aiming for a romp, not a piece of cinéma vérité, and a tremendously entertaining romp it is. Even some of the wonderful visual effects seem as much intended to invoke mirth as tension (e.g., the opening miniature shot). Screenwriters Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat (who also scripted a similar RBC recommendation Green for Danger) produced a pearl of a script, with laugh out loud humor, cleverly constructed comic bits and suspenseful situations, cute late 1930s style sexual innuendo and some lovely character sketches.

the lady vanishes19
The most famous of the latter are Caldicott and Charters. Naunton Wayne and Basil Radford were born to play the parts of the two cricket-obsessed, faintly barmy Englishmen abroad and they just about made a career of it from here on out, both in movies and television. Their timing is on the same level as Bob and Ray, but their sensibility is unmistakably English (not British mind you, English). It’s a testament to the actors and the writers that they were able to create characters that audiences could laugh at even though they were themselves being mocked to some extent (Decades later, The Simpsons would pull off the same trick on American television).

Hitchcock fans argue over whether this film or my previous recommendation The 39 Steps represents his best British work. I tend toward the latter by an eyelash, but why choose when both hold up so well three-quarters of a century after they were made? If you like one, you will like the other as the plot elements are similar and in both cases, the heroes have none of the darker shades that Hitchcock favored more as he aged (For example, consider the Ingrid Bergman and Cary Grant characters in Notorious). Lockwood and Redgrave are uncomplicated young people who are brave, smart, funny and in love.

The Lady Vanishes was such a success that the same writing team and a number of the actors were reunited to make another movie of the same sort, this time directed by Carol Reed. More on that movie next week.

The Lady Vanishes is in the public domain, and I post here for your enjoyment a perfectly nice print from The Internet Archive. The Criterion Collection version, available for purchase, looks even better and also includes some wonderful extras.

The Uncertain Future of Cannabis Farming in Humboldt County

As part of my work on the Blue Ribbon Commission on Marijuana Policy I spent an intriguing and enjoyable couple of days in Humboldt County with California Lt. Governor Gavin Newsom, Congressman Jared Huffman and State Assembly Member Jim Wood. We met with growers, toured a cannabis nursery and also held a public forum. This photo of the forum, taken from the back by journalist Grant Scott-Goforth, gives some sense of how well the event was attended. The room was crammed with over 200 people who stayed until the end (despite the room’s considerable heat) to articulate their concerns.

pot in garberville

The main anxiety small farmers in Humboldt expressed has a rational basis: A legal pot industry could very easily be dominated by big-time corporate producers that squeeze small farmers out of the business. In an unfettered free market (which some legalization activists favor), most of the small farmers in Humboldt would be out of work in no time.

But how legalization is implemented can influence whether big corporations become dominant. The planned Ohio marijuana initiative is an example of the kind of corporate giveaway that would destroy the Humboldt farmers overnight: Ten rich investors are campaigning for all legal marijuana to be grown by just ten rich people (you will never guess which ten…). In contrast, the Washington State system issues many growing licenses with a cap on the size of grows, which allows small farmers a fair shot at becoming part of the legal industry. What California does regarding legalization is in the hands of the initiative writers and the voters, but any initiative that doesn’t make room for small cannabis farmers will surely encounter heavy resistance in Humboldt County.

Portugal’s Misunderstood Drug Policy

Portugal’s drug policy has been the subject of intense debate in recent years. In 2001, the country passed a law decriminalizing possession of all drugs (i.e., not just cannabis). Although civil penalties for drug use remained, the possibility of incarceration was eliminated outright. Some claim that the policy turned the country into a drug-hidden hell hole whereas others argue that it produced a libertarian paradise on Earth. But a provocative new analysis suggests that no matter which side of that debate you were on, you were wrong, for a reason that might surprise you.

Hannah Laqueur, a rising young scholar at UC Berkeley, asks a novel question in her analysis of Portugal: Is there any evidence that the 2001 law actually was a radical move from criminalization to decriminalization of drug use? Looking at the 8 years of data prior to the law, she found that the average population of people in prison for simple drug possession was about 21. Not 21% of prisoners but 21 people in a nation of 10 million!. Prior to the elimination of prison sentences in 2001, drug possession convictions accounted for just 0.3% of Portugal’s prison population.

The 2001 law’s removal of incarceration as a penalty was thus simply a formalization of longstanding criminal justice policy. Looking at drug use indicators before and after 2001 and attributing any change to the “radical decriminalization” is thus wrong-headed because no such change occurred.

Kudos to Laqueur for applying an important general principle of public policy analysis: Always check whether the formal passage of a law actually preceded a change in practice. Sometimes that is true and sometimes it isn’t. The original analysis of Portugal’s drug policy, funded and heavily promoted by the libertarian Cato Institute, failed to undertake this essential analytic check. This illustrates another important public policy analysis rule: Be skeptical of any analysis conducted by someone with a king-sized ax to grind.

Is There Really a “Wave” of Political Correctness on Campus

Professor Stephen Taylor reacts to recent claims that universities are being overrun with P.C:

I have been reading, mostly in passing, a number of pieces about an alleged new climate on college campuses in which students are raising significant complaints due to difficult or emotionally sensitive material. This is the whole “trigger warnings” debate as well as a hypothesis that liberal over-sensitivity has run amuck among the late teens and twenty-somethings who populate typical college classes…To be honest this all seems like a bunch of individual anecdotes that do not string together to convince me that that is some great chilling taking place across the higher education landscape. But, of course, I may one day be proven wrong.

This is my own attitude as well. To prove the hypothesis that P.C. is a widespread national phenomenon would require systematic national data, not anecdotes (A suspicious number of which are recycled — if this is happening everywhere, why does any commentator need to borrow an anecdote from someone else?). If I am shown systematic data supporting the hypothesis, I will believe it, but otherwise I remain dubious that such a wave exists, for the following reason:

I am a straight White male professor whose entire career focuses on upsetting things: Drug addiction, prison, racism, domestic violence, AIDS etc. I never issue trigger warnings in my writing and teaching, yet I have never had any student complain even mildly that the material I present is too upsetting.

Of course I am just one professor so my experience can’t be be taken as support for a generalized conclusion. But that is precisely what is happening with individual stories of suffering under P.C. speech codes. Most people who are not experiencing being shut down, criticized, excluded etc. are not going to write blogs or op-eds about their non-experiences, anymore than the nightly news will carry a story of all the airplanes that landed safely that day. Keep that selection bias in mind when interpreting anecdotes of PC horrors and also be wary of the human tendency to equate an anecdote’s vividness with its representativeness.

What we really know from the P.C. anecdotes that are being published is that at least some academics are feeling threatened and silenced. But we don’t know that this is happening any more now than at any other time in history, nor that it’s truly a national phenomenon rather than a feature of a subset of universities (Or maybe even a subset of schools within a subset of universities). So enough with the anecdotes and on to systematic surveys of faculty and students that will reveal whether we truly face a educational crisis or are just panicking over a few negative, unrepresentative experiences.

Remembering Charles Kennedy

A remarkable political talent, Charles Kennedy, has passed away suddenly at the age of 55. He led the UK Liberal Democrats to their greatest heights. Because Nick Clegg did well in the television debates in the 2010 election and ultimately became Deputy Prime Minister, many people inaccurately reconstruct the LibDem peak as 2010. But remember, it lost seats in that election, and indeed other than a tiny gain a few months after Clegg became leader in 2007, the LibDems started losing local elections well before the 2010 national election, and has lost every one of them since. This was topped off with the 2015 slaughter, which also deprived Kennedy of his seat.

Because of what I do for a living, I always take particular note of how people with addictions manage their lives and careers. Kennedy sadly was brought low by his drink problem, and apparently never got into stable recovery (He was drunk on Question Time this March). Whether his drinking and the immolation of the Liberal Democrats hastened his death we cannot know, but in any event it’s hard not to wonder how much more he might have achieved with different flaps of the butterfly’s wings.